The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 15: The Joker): psychological thriller hints of psychological damage done by Cold War

Sidney Hayers, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 15: The Joker)” (1967)

Oops! As Steed (Patrick Macnee) excitedly races down the staircase to greet Peel (Diana Rigg) at the door, he trips and falls the rest of the way down, injuring his knee. As a result, he is laid up for the weekend, unable to accompany Peel to her weekend rendezvous with bridge-playing fanatic Sir Cavalierusticana – that should have been a dead give-away – who has read her article on applying mathematics to bridge in a magazine and wants to discuss the game with her. While she is away, an army officer (John Stone) calls at Steed’s home to inform him that the dangerous criminal Max Prendergast (Peter Jeffery), whom Steed and Peel put away in jail, has escaped and is hell-bent on seeking revenge against both of them. Later, on discovering that his staircase was booby-trapped to cause him to fall, Steed realises Peel’s life is in danger and frantically tries to track down her whereabouts before Prendergast can exact his revenge against her.

In the meantime, Peel has arrived at a huge mansion and is being entertained and terrorised in turn by her host’s creepy niece and housekeeper Ola (Sally Nesbitt) and a young man (Ronald Lacey) to soften her up for Prendergast when he comes to deliver the final blow. Can Steed reach her in time before Prendergast does? Can Peel’s nerve hold out against the torments Ola and friend pile upon her? Or will being alone in the mansion with its brooding sinister atmosphere, hallways lined with knights’ armour and bunches of roses, and rooms full of dark shadows, dead people in rocking chairs and things going bump in the night be enough to bring her down?

It’d be unfair to blame Alfred Hitchcock for everything referenced in this and other Avengers episodes: if anything, the portly one should have been demanding more than his fair share of the cut for inspiring this psychological thriller. One might imagine seeing many moments from the Master of Suspense’s past work here: bunches of roses lining the corridors recall the flower shop in “Vertigo”, the haunted house might have come straight out of “Psycho”, the fog from “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog”.  Even Ola provides the obligatory blonde: the twist is that she is an irritating psychopath rather than the heroine. Rigg holds her own as Peel, her expression and body language slowly revealing the character’s increasing nervousness beneath an apparently cool and tough exterior but the episode belongs to Jeffery in the short amount of screen time he has.

This is an excellent character-study episode that showcases Rigg’s ability in portraying a more steely side of her character. It does become slow and a bit repetitive halfway when Peel is forced to run from one room to the next and back again, and the script should have shown more of Steed’s efforts in trying to reach Peel to save her to increase the tension level.

The episode should have ended without its obligatory coda which was unnecessary: it would have been enough for viewers to see Peel’s relief on seeing Steed come to her rescue and her drained reaction is a fine piece of acting.

A Cold War romance with Peel as a honeypot who betrays him is implied in Prendergast’s speech which gives him the necessary motivation for wanting to destroy Peel and for a brief moment we see something of world politics as it was in the 1960s. There is a hint of faded and forgotten history and maybe of the psychological wreckage that the Cold War brought to people like Prendergast and even Peel: he remembers too much of his brief romance with Peel while she remembers nothing of it. (That may be the most chilling aspect of this episode.) It is all the more jarring when she reminds him of the people he has killed but does she not also think that he and she too are victims of a power play far above even them?

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